Is Everything We Hear About Leadersip Wrong?

Leadership BS Seeks to Debunk these 6 Fanciful Myths About Leadership

Leadership BS

Take a look at the U.S. Presidential race, the naked graft and corruption of the Brazilian government (among many others), or the state of leadership in corporate America—there seems to be a huge disconnect between our idealized notions of the “servant leader” and the cold, harsh facts of leadership in the real world.

Basically, you should question everything gurus tell you about leadership; you should take a look at the data-based evidence and make your own judgments, and you should take care of yourself (because no one else is going to).

That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Leadership BS: Saving Workplaces and Careers One Truth at A Time by Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer.

Prof. Pfeffer studies and teaches power and organizational behavior at Stanford Business School and in his latest book he doesn’t pull any punches in attacking the burgeoning “leadership industry” for what he calls its “failure” to produce better leaders and improve the often “horrible” environments at many workplaces.

Leadership BS is insightful and provocative, but it’s also more than a little discomfiting for those poor souls in the “leadership industry” whom he takes to the woodshed for their alleged ignorance, excessive idealism, and fallacious advice.

Leadership Quackery is what Pfeffer might call it in a moment of modesty.

Leadership Bullsh*t is what he actually calls it on the cover of his new book.


The heavy-handed and perhaps unfair critique of the leadership industry not withstanding, the result is a thought-provoking and engaging book that anyone who works, leaders and non-leaders alike, needs to read.


But be forewarned, Prof. Pfeffer’s work is not always cheery nor palatable, and some have even called it cynical and Machiavellian. He calls it data-driven and sober—a clear-eyed description of reality. This is leadership as it exists, he claims, not as we would idealistically wish it could be.

Whether you agree or disagree with his analysis, the book contains many insights that you can use in your own career and in your every day dealings at work, or as you develop your own theories about how leadership works in the real world and how you can be an effective leader inside your organization.

Here are the 6 leadership myths that Prof. Pfeffer seeks to disabuse us of through his latest book:

1. Business Schools and Leadership Gurus Should Inspire People

Definitely not so, says Prof. Pfeffer.

If you are a leader actually trying to improve workplace conditions, or a person interested in charting a more successful career, Prof. Pfeffer believes inspiration is decidedly NOT what you need:

“What you need are facts, evidence and ideas. Cheering may be helpful at sporting events but not so much in the nitty-gritty job of fixing workplaces and careers.”

Fables, autobiographies, semi-autobiographical works, speeches, talks, case studies, and leadership business prescriptions are more about crafting the author’s image and reputation, and telling people what they want to hear. Seldom is this what leaders need to actually be successful in the real world, claims Pfeffer.

Instead, he counsels us to seek out data and well-tested ideas about what actually works and consider skipping the fables and the self-serving work product of the leadership industry.

2. Leaders Should be Modest

Modesty is good in a leader because it helps boosts likability, trust and a sense of ownership and engagement among followers, right? Yes, says Prof. Pfeffer, but don’t get carried away.

Immodesty might be better way to go according to Pfeffer.

First off, the evidence suggests that modesty in leaders, especially in large organizations, is extremely rare. Secondly, though there is relatively little data on the benefits of modesty as an ingredient in one’s leadership style, the professor states that the research on narcissism is abundant and clear:

Narcissistic behavior such as self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, unwarranted self-confidence helps people attain leadership positions in the first place, and once attained, positively helps them hold on to those positions, extract more resources, salary and even helps in some, though not all, aspects of their performance on the job.

In fact, the professor notes how women and Asian managers, who are socialized to be more modest, are conspicuous by their absence at the highest echelons of corporate hierarchies.

Pfeffer cites the expansive and wide-ranging nature of leadership responsibilities and the confirmation bias as the culprits. When a leader’s responsibilities and skill sets are only vaguely defined,and if people present themselves with sufficient confidence and conviction, then we tend to invariably believe they know what they’re doing and that they are up to the task.

For these reasons, being too modest may not be the best policy at work if your goal is to move up the ranks.

3. Leaders Should be Authentic

How can leaders be authentic—true to their real selves—when their followers expect them to remain cool, calm and collected, even under the most difficult and trying circumstances? Do we not expect our leaders to suppress or induce feelings as the situation demands—to act and look like a leader at all times, no matter how they feel on the inside?

Professor Pfeffer even questions whether authenticity is psychologically possible given how the context and conditions of different roles or jobs can dramatically change the views, attitudes, values and personality of people over time:

If something as fundamental as one’s personality changes in response to job conditions, then the notion of being true to one’s authentic self makes no empirical sense because that self is changing in response to that individual’s environment, including the work environment.

When leaders present themselves, or are presented by others, as “authentic” be careful, counsels the professor, you are likely not getting the full story.

4. Leaders Should Tell the Truth

Leaders are not “the paragons of truthfulness they are so often portrayed to be,” says Pfeffer. In fact, leaders lie all the time because their power facilitates it, there are considerable advantages to doing it, and in the end they suffer few to no negative consequences. Actually, in a world awash in lies, truth-tellers, like whistle blowers, are the ones who suffer the consequences.

From Steve Jobs’ famous “reality distortion field”, to the rampant lying on resumes, to the evidence of a biological advantage bestowed by nature herself upon gifted deceivers, Pfeffer is heart-breakingly compelling on this point. People lie. Get over it.

Even the story about George Washington’s inability to tell a lie, was a lie, he points out.

Truth-tellers beware?

5. Leaders Should Build Trust

Trust is nice, and maybe it removes friction from human interaction, and increases organizational effectiveness, but its far from necessary according to Prof. Pfeffer.

“I no longer believe the trust is essential to organizational functioning or even to effective leadership,” he says. “Why? Because trust is notable mostly by its absence.“

He cites a 2011 study by Maritz that found that only a shocking 14% of Americans believes that their company’s leaders are ethical and honest. If trust is indeed as scarce as it appears, argues Pfeffer, then clearly it is not a necessary condition for functioning and effectiveness.

He goes on to cite evidence that people have a hard time spotting cheats and untrustworthy individuals, because our brains want and need to be able to trust. This is why breaches of trust are so prevalent, especially considering the fact that these breaches are seldom punished, and if the violator of trust is successful in acquiring more power and resources, it is often rewarded!

In addition, he says that leaders must often make tough decisions and even break promises in order to be effective in some circumstances. “Commitments constrain” and leaders seek to keep their options open.

For all these reasons, the professor argues for the need to “temper” our trust of leaders because they are often in the business of breaking promises and even explicit contracts.

6. You Can Depend On Leaders To Take Care of You

Throughout the book, Prof. Pfeffer is clear about the many ways that leaders in the real world act in their own self-interests. Thusly, Pfeffer expects the people working in organizations to do the same. In his view, employees should not depend on government or organizations to look out for their interests—the leaders in those organizations are too busy looking out for themselves to bother.

You need to take care of yourself.

Furthermore, Pfeffer argues that it is irrational for organizations to compete in a free market system, where the pursuit of self-interest by all parties is what makes the system work, but then discard that notion and replace it with talk of collaboration and of faith in enlightened, larger than life leaders once inside the organization. This has the effect of “infantilizing” normally capable and competent adults, he argues.

It’s better for people to take responsibility for their own well-being, he stresses.

Final Thoughts

To those of us who’ve been in the workforce for more than 10 years, Pfeffer’s argument will ring true, though the idealistic part of us may still be hoping that he’s wrong. He isn’t, though I can’t say I relish having to admit it. After more than 25 years of work, too much of what he says is backed up by the experiences I’ve had with leaders at many organizations. It’s a nitty-gritty, dog-eat-dog world sometimes and acknowledging that harsh reality is indeed the “pre-requisite” to taking action to fix the situation.

It is sensible advice and this book is a gift for millennials, especially, who are now entering the workforce in large numbers. They are not being taught about this in school and in the real world innocence can be costly. To you I say: read this book, study it, and take it to heart with the intent of doing something to fix it.  Pfeffer doesn’t do much in the way of suggesting solutions to the problem but he’s done an excellent job of tellings us what to watch out for.

Now we know that much of the time, leaders don’t eat last. They eat first.

So watch your plate!

One last thing. Prof. Pfeffer states that Leadership BS is in many ways a prequel to his most well-known work, Power. We’ll explore that tome on my next post.